It’s time to highlight another category of the best books of 2014, as measured by the ABBC, which compiles all of the honors bestowed on books by 172 different authoritative sources. Today, we’ll count down the nine most frequently praised biographies and memoirs.
Tied for eighth place is Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon. Roberts set out to create a new standard for one-volume biographies of Napoleon, and many reviewers believed he succeeded. This is the first biography to take advantage of access to Napoleon’s personal letters, over 33,000 of them, and as such provides new insight into his motivations and beliefs. Roberts also traveled to all but a few of Napoleon’s battle sites, finding new documents archived there. The result is a mostly laudatory work that will probably prove deeply satisfying to fans of Napoleon while providing food for thought for his critics.
Most of the books in the list are of a recognizable type that one would expect to find on a year’s-best list. But tied for eighth, also with 11 mentions, Kerry Howley’s Thrown comes as a surprise. Howley followed two mixed martial artists—cage fighters—for three years. She thought it would be an interesting cure for the boredom of academia and the smugness of some of her colleagues. The result is a literary take on a most unliterary subject, with a self-mocking tone from the author as she follows both a journeyman and a high-strung up-and-comer through a variety of bouts and life experiences.
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In the seventh spot, with 12 mentions, is Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. It’s the story of the idealistic Stevenson’s work as a lawyer advocating for society’s down and out, beginning with his days as a 23-year-old Harvard intern, continuing through his founding and directorship of the Equal Justice Initiative, and covering several of his most important cases defending young, poor, sometimes mentally disabled African-Americans in a South where Jim Crow practices survived in the criminal justice system. The focus, however, is on the trial of Walter McMillian, a young black man on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Readers and critics alike describe this one as moving and profound.
Lena Dunham seems to be a polarizing figure, but the creator and star of HBO’s Girls has enough strong fans to land at sixth in the list, with 14 best-of-the-year mentions. Not that Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” is a brash, self-involved, funny, and analytical look at her experiences as a confident young woman trying to make it in Hollywood while experiencing cringe-worthy dates and facing her fears of death, pregnancy, and other pitfalls.
Biographies on two cultural icons of the American 20th century are tied for the fourth spot, with 15 mentions each. The first is Updike, by Adam Begley, which follows the iconic author from his youth in Pennsylvania, through his rise at The New Yorker, to his family life and adulteries in Massachusetts, and his later years, spent somewhat in retreat from the world. While Updike wrote about his experiences in a variety of fictional guises, Begley combines text analysis with good access to many of the author’s family members and intimates. As a product of WASP-y white male privilege, Updike was loved by some and reviled by others, but Begley succeeds in making readers understand the man better and also illuminating the times in which he lived.
Another definitive biography comes from John Lahr, who takes on the tempestuous giant of the American theater in Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Lahr covers Williams’ domineering parents, his sad, demented sister, his late-emerging sexuality, and his seemingly unquenchable pursuit of often brutal affairs thereafter. He looks at how these experiences contributed to Williams’ rise in the theater and the sad malaise of his last 20 years, when, mired in drugs, alcohol, and paranoia, he couldn’t find another hit or any happiness, despite his enduring fame.
Second place is also a tie, but here the books, with 18 mentions each, are quite different. Amy Poehler’s Yes Please is a funny, dishy book, full of advice that is sometimes highly insightful, sometimes self-mocking. It’s drawn a lot of comparisons to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, but Poehler’s book is less about comedy and contains less direct comedy writing than Fey’s. There’s more life advice here, about nurturing creativity, pursuing passions, finding room for being kind along the way. There’s also some vulnerability, as Poehler discusses her self doubts and her vulnerability to criticism.
The other book in the penultimate spot is The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. Peace was a young man who worked his way out of a Newark ghetto, overcoming his father’s conviction for a double murder, building on his ferocious mother’s hard work and intelligence, ultimately earning a full ride scholarship to Yale University. There, he met Hobbs, who was his roommate. He never entirely escaped the streets, dealing pot while at Yale, even while he succeeded as a student. Despite his degree in biochemistry and biophysics, Peace struggled after graduation, finding only a series of dead end jobs and returning slowly back to connections with childhood friends and a criminal life that would lead to his murder in a drug deal. It’s a sad but revealing tale of how even hard work, an Ivy League degree, and a supportive mother couldn’t ultimately overcome structural inequalities and instability.
As seems to be the theme this year, the top spot goes to a book well ahead of the competition in the category, with 25 mentions for Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. The author of three acclaimed novels, Shteyngart looks at his immigrant’s life—his family moved from Leningrad to Queens when Igor, who would become Gary, was six—with equal measures of humor, alienation, and self deprecation. Themes of the account include his rebellion against Judaism, his experiences with tacky but addictive American culture, and most importantly, how writing ultimately saved him, leading him to Oberlin, Hunter College, and success as a novelist. Shteyngart’s memoir has all the caustic wit and energy of his novels, with the added pathos of his intense but difficult relationship with his parents.
Remember that you can download the full ABBC to see 287 other books mentioned as a best biography or memoir of 2014, then move on to any of the other eleven categories. I’ll finish with a list of other biographies and memoirs that received seven or more best-of-the-year mentions.
My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead (9)
Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War, by Robert Gates (8)
Not My Father’s Son: a Memoir, by Alan Cumming (8)
Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life, by Hermione Lee (8)
Rebel Yell: the Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, by S. C. Gwynne (8)
A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre (8)
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, by Viv Albertine (7)
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird (7)
My Salinger Year, by Joanna Smith-Rakoff (7)
Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, by Helen Thorpe (7)